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Panel reports to Torgersen on Claudius Lee

By David Nutter

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 13 - November 20, 1997

One of the issues President Torgersen discussed at last week's forum on campus climate was the allegation that Claudius Lee, a venerated faculty member for whom Lee Hall is named, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan when he was a student in the late 1890s.
The controversy over Lee was touched off this semester when students in Peter Wallenstein's class on the history of Virginia Tech came across a page in the student yearbook listing Lee as a leader in the campus chapter of the KKK. The listing for the campus chapter of the Klan appeared in the 1896 Bugle.
Following the disclosure of this history, Torgersen named a panel to review existing historical documents to determine if there was any supporting evidence and if Lee had engaged in any overt KKK activity. The panel members are Peter Wallenstein, Joyce Williams-Green, and Michael Herndon, the graduate student representative to the Board of Visitors.
The investigation to date reveals no record of overt KKK activity by Lee or in the Blacksburg area during that time.
What is known, said Torgersen, was that Lee served on the college staff for 50 years and beyond, into retirement. He made possible the education of three young men unrelated to him who could not have financed their education without his help. Lee's honors were numerous. He developed Tech's first clock system which was usable until his death, and was credited with being a mechanical genius who kept much of the university's machinery running.
At the same time, said Torgersen, Lee's name is listed in the 1896 Bugle as being associated with 12 organizations, two of which are despicable by today's standards and would also have been viewed as reprehensible by many in the 1890s. One organization is the KKK and the other is the Pittsylvania Club, which apparently referred to the county in which Danville is located and Lee's hometown. That club's logo, which was reproduced in the Bugle, included a sketch of an African-American hanging by his neck from the limb of a tree.
Although some have suggested that the pages might be youthful pranks meant to be humorous in the same way that other pages more clearly were, Torgersen said, "When I first saw these pages, I was sickened by them and still am."
Torgersen said that he briefed the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors on the issue at last week's meeting and will make a final recommendation to the board at its February meeting that is in the best interest of the entire university community.